Lucy McRobert is an environmental historian, nature writer, researcher and Creative Director of the ‘A Focus On Nature’ scheme, which seeks to encourage young people into nature conservation in Britain. She gained an award-winning First Class degree from the University of Nottingham in 2012, and whilst an undergraduate was runner-up in BBC Wildlife magazines’ ‘Nature Writer of the Year’ competition. Lucy has written for several publications and most recently has started penning her own column in Birdwatch; she now works for the Wildlife Trusts as a Researcher on Tony Juniper’s forthcoming publication examining What has Nature ever done for Britain? and has recently been appointed as Outreach Officer for the Rutland Osprey Project.
I’ve just read an interesting thread on the Yorkshire Birders Facebook group, looking at whether ringing birds is necessary any more. Immediately this begs the question of why I am a member of the Yorkshire Birders, given that I live in ‘Lesta’ (you have to say it right), but I’m not complaining as the group is certainly an informative one.
But that’s by the by.
What’s more interesting is reading people’s different opinions and attitudes towards ringing. Of course there were those on either side of the fence – that ringing was overtly good or bad – and the same went for satellite tagging; considered in this were arguments about the birds’ welfare, possible stress and injury, and the necessity of actually ringing the birds in the first place: we’ve been doing it for over 100 years now, so have we learnt all there is to know?
The British Trust for Ornithology claims that “Ringing birds is essential if we are to learn about how long they live and when and where they move, questions that are vital for bird conservation. Placing a lightweight, uniquely numbered, metal ring around a bird’s leg provides a reliable and harmless method of identifying birds as individuals.”
I’d probably say that this is a bit of an over-statement in a contemporary sense. We are learning masses from lightweight satellite transmitters: after all, technology does have it uses. And that’s not forgetting that ringing birds is a two-way process: putting the actual ring on is only the first step. Someone then has to either a) read the ring whilst the bird is still moving – easy with an Osprey conveniently posing on webcam, but significantly more difficult with smaller birds – or b) report a dead bird with a ring.
According to Robinson et al (2009), ” Overall, recovery rates have declined markedly since 1960. Of the 68 species studied, 64 showed a decline in recovery rate, far more than would be expected simply through chance, with a decline of around 25% per decade (quartile range 18–33%).” They go on to suggest that “changes in human behaviour, rather than factors associated with the ecology of particular species, are responsible for the declines in recovery rate observed in the majority of species. It is impossible to distinguish whether these declines are the result of fewer birds being found, or fewer rings being reported, or, more likely, a combination of these factors.”
So, arguably, one can pose the question, what is the point?
Well, even though I am not a ringer, I would argue that there is one. All the arguments presented in the thread were overtly science-based, but I have a theory: some people aren’t going to like it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
A lot of people are talking about our childhood disconnection with nature. This is leading through into our professional and adult lives, culminating, supposedly, with 4 out of 5 children being disconnected with nature, which could (and let’s face it, probably is!) having a negative impact on our emotional, social, physical and intellectual well-being.
I would argue, therefore, that bird ringing is not purely a scientific activity – but a socio-cultural one, too. We have been ringing birds longer than we have been watching them (at least in the modern sense of ‘birding’, which arose largely post WWII), and thus it is a part of our historical and cultural connection with birds, and by extension, nature. It brings us joy, peace and excitement. It raises questions, it intrigues us and teaches us, and allows us in some small way to quench our thirst for understanding and getting close to nature.
Many prominent nature conservationists today started out by getting a bit too close to nature – by nicking it to keep in their bedrooms – but in our ‘Thou shalt not touch’ health-and-safety-hygiene-conscious culture, I wonder whether ringing can once again break down that barrier to nature that we have spent too long building up?
I do believe that there is an element of ownership (or maybe ‘personal pride’ is a better term) to ringing; it must be a wonderful feeling to know that something you held and ringed (and thus left your mark on) has been recovered, often hundreds or even thousands of miles away, by a total stranger. I do not believe we have the right to man-handle nature, but I do think that many of us crave a closer connection with it: maybe that’s why we list, why we photograph, why we collect?
You only have to go to the BTO bird ringing stand at Birdfair to see that it is surrounded by children and adults alike, all secretly hoping that they’ll be chosen from the crowd to release the bird. And there’s another aspect to this, too: it allows children to see something up close and personal, in a way that birding from a hushed, cold and box-like hide does not. It draws them in, ignites a passion, sparks their curiosity: a female Chaffinch is no longer a little brown bird, but an intricately marked and engaging creature; a Blue Tit is no longer a tiny, demure thing, but a feisty little devil that wants to get your fingers off: I’ve been told that only Blue Tits really know how to get you on that sensitive bit of skin between finger and thumb.
Over 900,000 birds are ringed in Britain and Ireland each year by over 2,600 trained ringers, most of whom are volunteers. I would wager that the vast majority (maybe not all) do this first and foremost – every weekend, day in, day out, early starts and all – because they enjoy it. I was talking to someone at the BTO Annual Conference last December, and when I asked him if he enjoyed ringing, he was so appalled at the very notion that one could enjoy science that he referred to me as an ‘Ornithological Jeremy Paxman’ and refused to talk to me again. I guess that means I got pretty close to the truth.
So to the point of my speculation. I do not in any way wish to undermine the scientific value of ringing. We have not yet learnt all there is to know about birds, their movements and migrations, and as our understanding of climate change deepens, we can assume that we’re only just scratching the surface: I therefore urge you to report any ringed birds you see. I wouldn’t say that it’s ‘essential’, but I’d certainly say that it’s very useful. But we have to remember that the vast majority of the population connect with nature not through science, but through culture, imagination and society. In this respect, I think bird ringing could play a massive role in reconnecting people with nature.
So if you’re a ringer, and you know a child interested in wildlife, take them with you. Who knows? You may just save their life.